John Calhoun on the Nature and Purpose of Constitutions

John C. Calhoun

John Calhoun’s Disquisition on Government is one of the only theoretical treatises on government written by a prominent American statesman. In it, Calhoun offered some of his more lasting insights on the nature and purpose of constitutionalism.

The powers vested in [government officials] to prevent injustice and oppression on the part of others, will, if left unguarded, be by them converted into instruments to oppress the rest of the community. That by which this is prevented, by whatever name called, is what is meant by constitution, in its most comprehensive sense …

The human need for society, he argued, was rooted in an element of human nature which allowed the highest virtues to blossom only in a common life together. Yet human nature also had a self-regarding element, which usually overpowered social sympathies when they came in conflict. Therefore, a government vested with sufficient power to restrain wrongdoers was an unavoidable part of human life, making Calhoun question “states of nature.” But that governmental power was just as dangerous, if not more so, vested as it was in human beings who can use it to take advantage of some for the benefit of themselves. Only constitutional government, then, which divided power across the various fault-lines of society and prevented its arbitrary exercise, could properly preserve and perfect human social life.